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Transnational meanings and makings of class: Polish labour, capital and the state

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TRANSCLASS (Transnational meanings and makings of class: Polish labour, capital and the state)

Reporting period: 2017-12-01 to 2019-11-30

Class is an important category that explains unequal relations between workers and employers, traditionally examining these relations within a single nation-state. This research has examined how class is made and imagined in instances in which transnational capitalist processes release both capital and labour from the national confines, and anchor them in multiple countries simultaneously, and what remains of the nation state’s role as the guardian of a particular class’s interests. The answer is provided by way of an ethnographic analysis of posted work, a European Union mobility regime that involves the transnational subcontracting of foreign labour for short-term projects under the provision of service. The analysis is conducted from the perspective of Polish construction workers posted to Belgium, Polish employers who post Polish workers abroad, and the Polish state as the sending country.

This research has grown out of the conviction that transnationally and culturally sensitive investigations of class transformations can help us to better understand economic situation and power struggles that emerge under global capitalism, and to further political possibilities for a more just and equal European society, one which is open to transnational mobility, rather than one which normalizes national boundaries and stasis.

Posted work is a rapidly growing type of European mobility (which saw a 44% increase between 2012 and 2014), amounting to 1.93 million workers. Poland posts between 220,000 and 605,000 workers annually, with figures varying depending on the mode of calculation of the Portable Document A1, which legitimizes workers’ posted status. I view posted work as an emblematic context through which transnational complexities of class transformations, and the conflicting interests which mark the project of European integration, might be studied and theorized.

Posting is regulated by the national implementation of two transnational European policies: the Posted Workers Directive (96/71/EC and 2014/67/EU) and the Regulation on the Coordination of the Social Security Systems (883/2004 and 987/2009). They create posting as a legal exception: posted workers do not move as individual migrants, but under the transnational umbrella of their employers. Their mobility generates an institutional split, whereby workers are subjected to the destination country’s superior labour standards, but remain insured and pay taxes (up to 183 days) in the country of origin in which their employer is also located. Because Polish posted workers are institutionally anchored in Poland, their insurance premiums and taxes are lower than in the Western countries of destination. This makes posting an appealing business model for the employers, but is seen as problematic from the destination country’s perspective.
I conducted a multi-sited ethnography in Poland and Belgium in 2018-2019 in order to grasp the power relations between that different actors that make up the regime. I interviewed Polish posted workers, employers and Polish state officials, as well as participated in various workshops organized for Polish posting employers in Poland and Belgium.

My research indicates that posted work produces a fragmented landscape of class that hierarchizes Polish labour and capital within and across national borders. It brings Polish actors both empowerment and subjugation vis-a-vis each other and their foreign counterparts. Posting presents Polish workers the possibility to renegotiate their subjugated financial status in Poland and the opportunity to contribute to their self-identification as a transnationally skilled workforce that can adopt a middle-class status in Poland, despite living on the social margins of the destination countries. However, the complexity and ambiguity of regulations aids and abets the uncertainty of status and fragmentation. It accentuates the division between those workers who are posted and those who are employed directly with the principle contractor abroad, and is enhanced by the growing division between workers who are posted as employees and those who are self-employed.

Posting allows Polish employers to negotiate their self-identification as a subaltern capital and to gradually ascend to a transnational capitalist class. In contrast to workers, the ambiguity of the regime becomes an underpinning of the emerging class identification of Polish employers because it provides an impetus to host workshops, knowledge exchange and provides the basis for political agency at the European Union level to keep posting regulations less strict than those desired by the Western receiving countries. ’s Western administrations are often conceived of as targeting Polish employers and exploiting the ambiguity in order to push them out of the market. The escape from the subaltern status has its limits, given that Polish employers mostly go abroad as subcontractors and have a limited leverage to negotiate well-paid contracts with Western companies, which also affects their workforce detrimentally vis-à-vis the local workforce.

The Polish state’s involvement in posting is multi-scalar and contradictory. Although the Polish government sees posting as a Polish national interest, its ability to shape posting in a way it considers to be favourable is limited. It did not have significant power in affecting European legislations while the key Polish state player at the level of everyday decision making, namely the Polish Social Insurance Institution and its officials who issue A1 portable documents, are bound by transnational regulations and accountability. The officials view the ambiguity of regulations to be problematic. It engenders their own decision-making to secure the long-term certainty of the A1 document which neither serves workers nor employers’ interests.

I have communicated these results at different conferences and seminars, in academic publications, and through the internet to various targeted audiences, from academics in different disciplines to practitioners.
The focus on power relations and class making related to posting allows to think of new policy directions and greater support for the European project of integration, without undermining the quest for social justice and equality. Instead of arguing that posted work involves social dumping – as destination country actors often indicate – or involves market protection – as the Polish government and employers indicate–, this project sheds light on what sort of power different actors have to negotiate and affect their transnational situation, voices possible disagreements and exercise political agency at the European arena. In a sense, all of the Polish actors are limited in what they can do, but workers and the self-employed, along with small companies, have arguably the least amount of resources to maximize the potential of posted work, to navigate ambiguities and to voice disagreements regarding transgression of their rights. The equal distribution of knowledge and infrastructural support would allow small companies to better negotiate contracts with destination country companies in the context of the unequal distribution of economic resources between Eastern and Western Europe. This, in turn, would contribute to workers’ welfare, while providing destination countries with a valuable human resource which goes beyond “cheap labour”.